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July 25, 2003

What Does Chile, Singapore Trade Votes Mean?

Yesterday, the House approved free trade pacts with Singapore and Chile by overwhelming margins.

After near-death votes on trade promotion authority and other recent trade votes, does a 272-155 margin for Singapore and 270-156 margin for Chile trade mean the end of the battle for stronger labor and environmental standards in trade agreements?

Not at all. The reality is that Chile and Singapore already have decent labor laws and pledged to enforce those laws as part of these trade agreements. So some moderate Democrats felt they could support trade with these two countries.

But the next battle is the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and no one would argue that labor laws are adequate in those countries. Many of the Democrats who voted for the Singapore and Chile bills stated opposition to CAFTA:

the majority of Democrat votes allowing passage of the agreements were couched in commitments to oppose CAFTA and the FTAA if these agreements follow along the same model as the Chile and Singapore Agreements. Examples include a Democratic leadership letter sent to the U.S. Trade Representative stating that core labor standards have to be included in CAFTA, and a Hispanic Caucus statement to the same effect.

Here are some of the stark abuses of labor rights in those countries, as documented by Congressman Sander Levin, ranking member on the trade subcommittee of Ways and Means:
  • In Nicaragua and El Salvador, an employer can fire any employee whom it believes is sympathetic to an organizing effort simply by paying a small severance.
  • In Nicaragua and Guatemala, employees cannot undertake a work stoppage or strike without approval of the government, either by law or by the effect of government regulation.
  • In El Salvador we visited a plant where there was highly credible evidence that the employer had blacklisted employees who had tried to organize a neighboring plant. (That plant was shut down to avoid its workers being able to organize.)
  • In one plant I visited in Nicaragua workers had quite recently been working 70-to-80 hours (apparently for the same $100 a month); in some cases they were working 24 hour shifts. Protests finally forced new management, but the new management said they were still working people longer than permitted in the law.
  • In Guatemala we talked with a worker who had witnessed workers who had been trying to organize being surrounded and beaten by some other employees, without any intervention by management. Indeed, the worker believed that the bats used could only have been provided by management.
  • In Nicaragua and Guatemala, there were described use of the criminal process by an employer in order to bust a union, in maquilas and other sectors.
  • In Guatemala it is impossible for an organization to legally try to organize within an entire industry like the garment industry without having in advance 50% plus one of the workers signed up and registered with the government.
  • Finally, as far was we could determine, there is not a single effective collective bargaining agreement in any of the garment maquilas of the three countries though there are over 300,000 workers.

    The last item is worth noting-- NOT A SINGLE collective bargaining agreement. That is as crystal clear a sign of pervasive anti-union oppression as can be noted.

    So no CAFTA agreement should be approved until those countries improve their labor rights or agree to an enforceable provision in trade agreements to only allow trade for goods producted by firms that agree to abide by internationally recognized labor rights under the International Labor Organization (ILO).

    Posted by Nathan at July 25, 2003 10:28 AM